The fisheries agreement recently reached between Taiwan and Japan has given Taiwanese fishermen the right to operate in waters close to the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) and although it has not resolved the issue of the islands’ sovereignty, the deal means that the territorial spat is likely to cool down, which can only be a good thing. The reason the countries were able to reach the compromise on fishing rights is that they both adopted a pragmatic approach and were prepared to make concessions.
Some observers have said the agreement is the result of Taipei increasing pressure on Tokyo over the sovereignty of the islands — known as the Senkakus in Japan — in combination with the potential support of China, which caused Japan to drop its previous refusal to sign a fisheries agreement because it feared cooperation between China and Taiwan on the matter.
While an unwillingness to see cross-strait cooperation on the issue certainly played a part in Japan’s decision, Tokyo would have had no interest in discussing the fisheries agreement with Taipei had the Taiwanese government continued to play hardball over the islands. It was because Taiwan abandoned its previous confrontational brinkmanship and publicly announced three reasons why it would not cooperate with China over the Diaoyutais, along with the fine that was issued to activists that landed on the islands last year, that Taipei was able to regain credibility in Japan’s eyes. This allowed those in Tokyo who advocated a more pragmatic approach to the fisheries issue to set the agenda, paving the way for the signing of the agreement.
The US also played a constructive role.
However, the real challenge begins now, after the agreement has been signed. The waters around the Diaoyutais have not been the traditional focus of fisheries disputes between Taipei and Tokyo. This means that — in addition to the two parties having to be clear on what is required to respect the agreement — if these waters are included in the agreement, the risk of conflict will increase.
If there is a lack of regulations or tacit agreement on how to deal with disagreements, the chances of achieving a consensus decrease and could instead lead to more disputes.
China poses another challenge. Beijing reacted very negatively to the fisheries agreement, with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanding that Japan respect the “one China” principle and raising concerns that the agreement would create “two Chinas.” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office reminded the Taiwanese government that it had a responsibility to protect the sovereignty of the Diaoyutais and the rights of fishermen from both sides of the Taiwan Strait operating in the area.
Given Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) attempts to define China as a great power in the Asia-Pacific region, the fisheries agreement, which covers an area that Beijing sees as a core interest, is tantamount to directly challenging China’s prestige. If China does not react, its credibility as a great power will suffer and Beijing therefore feels forced to take action in order to maintain its authority.
Given this, what should Taiwan do if Chinese fishing boats enter the area around the Diaoyutais? Will the Coast Guard Administration expel Chinese surveillance ships or fishing boats from the area? What will Taipei do if Beijing requests that it protect Chinese fishermen in the area? Will the government be able to resist Chinese pressure or will it compromise with China in other areas — the South China Sea for example — in exchange for Chinese goodwill? These are issues that require careful observation.
Lai I-chung is an executive committee member of the Taiwan Thinktank.
Translated by Perry Svensson